A little Russian girl touches her dead mother just after the liberation of the Ozarichi concentration camp in Belarus; ca. March 1944
Information on the liberation of the Ozarichi death camps.
Because conditions varied wildly over time and across the different camps (political prisoner camps, forced labor camps, ghettos, etc.), I will concentrate on Auschwitz since there is rather a lot of material available about this harrowing subject.
Warning: this is not pleasant reading
Before the autumn of 1944, when systematic gassing of Jewish inmates was halted, all Jewish babies were killed upon birth, generally together with the mothers who were guilty of the “crime” of arriving or falling pregnant in Auschwitz. If the pregnancy was discovered before the birth, the women were killed too. This led to the drama of improvised abortions and concealed births followed by infanticide, either by the hands of the mothers or by the physicians, nurses or midwives among the inmates that were assisting them in their labor. The most famous of these doctors was Gisella Perl, a Jewish-Romanian gynecologist who wrote I was a doctor in Auschwitz in which she describes how she performed many abortions to save the mothers’ lives.
After October 1944, Jewish babies were not automatically killed, but this didn’t increase their chances of survival significantly, as no accommodation was made for the welfare of mother and child, and the women were expected to continue with the excruciatingly hard work and subsist on literal starvation diets. There are only eight recorded births of Jewish babies in Auschwitz. There is no record of any surviving.
The Family Camps:
There were two “family camps” at Auschwitz where certain groups were allowed to live on as best they could on starvation rations and racked by diseases caused by overcrowding and unsanitary conditions. The inmates in these “family camps” were not subjected to wholesale gassing of children, the sick and the elderly upon arrival as the regular transports were and families were allowed to stay together.
The “Gypsy” camp was established before it was finally decided that these people were all to be exterminated too. There were sporadic gassings, though. It housed Sinti and Roma families from February 1943 to August 1944. Occasionally, groups of inmates were sent to other camps for forced labor. On August 1944, almost all the remaining inmates were killed. More than 370 children were born in this camp, though it is unclear whether any survived.
The Theresienstadt family camp was in operation from September 1943 to May 1944 and was part of the whole Theresienstadt propaganda effort to “prove” to the outside world that Jews were not being killed after deportation. It housed families deported from the Theresienstadt ghetto in Bohemia who were forced to write letters about how good they had it at Auschwitz and that the families were staying together. Pregnant women were allowed to give birth. However, after six months the camp was liquidated to make room for new transports from Theresienstadt, and these inmates in turn were all killed in July 194
Non-Jewish and Non-”Gypsy” Women:
Most of these women were Polish and Soviet “political” prisoners, though there were some German inmates (Jehovah’s Witnesses, women convicted of crimes, prostitutes, etc) as well as a smattering of “political” prisoners from other countries. Policies were more erratic here. At first, these women were killed upon arrival if they were found to be pregnant. If they fell pregnant after entering Auschwitz, they generally resorted to secret abortions much in the same way as did the Jewish women. Starting from 1943, women were allowed to give birth, but many babies were subsequently killed, sometimes immediately, sometimes later, depending, it seems, on the whims of the SS. Generally, the women were forced to kill their own babies, or this was done by the medical staff who were inmates themselves. However, some blond and blue-eyed babies were taken away to the Potulice concentration camp or similar places that acted as transit camps for Polish children who were deemed to look “Aryan” enough to be subsequently adopted by German couples. In September of 1943, the first baby was officially registered as a camp inmate and received the distinctive Auschwitz tattoo with its inmate number. At liberation there were 156 children of less than three years still alive in Auschwitz, but it is not known how many (if any) of these were actually born there (a number of children were sent to Auschwitz in the wake of the Warsaw uprising of autumn 1944). The living conditions were such that a baby had very little chance of survival.
Langbein, Hermann. People in Auschwitz. University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
Sinti and Roma (Gypsies) in Auschwitz
Bársony, János, and Ágnes Daróczi, eds. Pharrajimos: the fate of the Roma during the Holocaust. IDEA, 2008.
Gutman, Yisrael, and Michael Berenbaum, eds. Anatomy of the Auschwitz death camp. Indiana University Press, 1998.
The important thing to know about the general European context of Jewish-Gentile relations is that Jews were considered an existential ‘other” and were persecuted in varying levels at varying times. This period roughly from the end of the Roman Empire to the end of the 19th century can be thought of as anti-Judaism because as opposed to anti-Semitism there was no racial component. Jews were hated because of their religion and/or religious heritage (deicide –killing of Christ — using blood of Gentile children in the making of matzah — blood libel — etc.) What this meant is that if a Jew converted or stopped practicing then they could “potentially” be accepted. There are some examples of this not being the case, especially during the Inquisition, where Spanish Catholics feared the rise of secret Jews that would corrupt their faith. The point in bringing up this is that the Nazis along with others in Europe changed the reason for hating Jews. With the rise of modern thought, old religious prejudices were archaic and antiquated. Instead, Nazis saw Jews as racial antagonists, born with the goal of destroying the Aryan people. This grew out of a horrible misinterpretation of Darwin, and morphed into a battle of the races. Germans as well as other European host societies in the late 18th early 19th century that hard large prominent Jewish populations often talked of Jews as being parasites or cancers. Given this context, killing Jews wasn’t so much murdering innocent people as it was a simple medical operation to make the German people healthy again. The other thing this meant was that even if a Jew converted, they would still be a Jew “by blood”. If you genetic code or your blood is what causes you to be bad or want to destroy Aryans, then there is nothing you can do, it’s just a simple fact of biology. Even babies have to be killed if you follow this logic. Although the baby can do no harm now, it has the “biological potential” to destroy you and it is evolved to do exactly that. Kill it or be killed yourself. As you will see as wee progress throughout these stages, one of the overriding causes of prejudice is fear. This absolutely fear and feeling of being hard done. Everything bad that has ever happened can be wrapped up and blamed on the Jews. And when everything is the fault of the Jew it is very easy to go from simply denying them rights, to eventually extermination. But I am getting ahead of myself here.
*The introduction of race and modern thought changed the hatred of Jews from old religious prejudice, to racial biological opposition.
Another pre-stage issue that ought to be discussed is many of the stereo-types of Jews as well as the historical circumstances that caused them to develop. Even today everyone knows of the “banker Jew” or the “rich greedy Jew”. This develops directly as a response to two issues: First, Jews are barred from owning land throughout much if not the entirety of the pre-modern period. One of the few occupations that Jews could work in was as money-lenders or “court-Jews” where unlike their Christian counterparts who could not charge interest due to religious law regarding usury, Jews were able to loan money for profit and a very very select few were able to become successful this way. I make an emphasis of how small this group is specifically because some people misconstrue this and interpret this as all Jews were successful bankers. Not only is this far from the truth, but Jews also had a stereo-type for being poor and dirty and ruining cities because of the condition of their ghettos. I believe Goethe even remarks on this when discussing the city of Frankfurt and the appalling condition of Frankfurt’s Jewish quarter. I bring this up to emphasize that stereo-types of Jews are created with pre-conceived notions of their being something wrong with Jews. When they are successful it is because they are greedy and steal from the poor average Christian. When they are poor it is because they did not accept Christ and they are stupid and what have you. No matter what Jews did, it was always bad. Specifically though, this becomes even more important in the modern period with the unbridled expansion and revolution of capitalism and industry. I don’t know why but for some reason people seem to gloss over how revolutionary (in the sense of completely changing the accepted order) the advent of capitalism and industry were for the average person. When in the course of a single generation you go from small family in home production to the massive factories of coal and steel, where children lose arms and families can barely afford to eat while behemoths of iron race by you with the power of a hundred horses and can take you across entire nations to distant lands and different peoples … it is quite simply too much for some people. In this age all of these problems and new developments seem awful and people wonder why this is all happening. People fall back on their old prejudices but with a new flavor. The Jews did this. They are the ones that invented capitalism and are profiting from it. Look at all these rich Jewish businessmen and bankers. They are the ones that have destroyed the traditional European economy and family. They are the ones that force your husband to work in the mines while the rich live lives of luxury beyond your comprehension.
This part is where it gets tricky though. Jews also get blamed for the anti-thesis of capitalism as well: communism. Marx being a Jew as well as many younger radical Jews such as Trotsky being a part of the movement means that the whole project becomes a Jewish conspiracy. Once again, anything and everything that can and does go wrong is blamed on the Jews. Secret military documents leaked to your enemy? Blame Dreyfuss the Jew. Hate the excesses of capitalism? Blame the Rothschilds and join a nationalist socialist party. Hate communism as well or more? Hate Trostky and Marx and join a nationalist socialist party. It is a completely self-containing and self-fulfilling system. If you go looking for a Jewish conspiracy you will find one whether its there or not.
*Old prejudices with a new modern twist create a nasty environment.
Okay so hopefully you get the sense now that Jew-hatred has always been a thing, but it is changing at a critical juncture in time and it is doing so with some nasty effects. There has always been pogroms where killing Jews is okay, but this is small scale. I think what you want to get to is the wholesale slaughter and destruction of the Jews. I am trying to only hit the major points, but there is so much to know (Influence of WWI, Failings of the Weimar Republic and how that relates to anti-Semitism, why the most progressive moments for Jews were also the most fraught, the developments of Eugenics and the Zyklon B program etc.)!
Stage 1: Legal Persecution (ca. 1933 – 1938)
This period from roughly when the Nazis and Hitler take power to Kristallnacht are important because it codifies into law the differentiation between Jew and German. The most obvious example is the Nuremburg Laws of 1935 which banned Jews from public office and government jobs (a really big deal in Germany), denied them equal citizenship, boycotted Jewish businesses, and a host of other legal implications both nationally and locally. The idea was that if the Nazis could deprive Jews of their rights they would be able to control them and prevent their scheming and influence from infiltrating important aspects of German society. But for all this is worth, this is far from the mass extermination of Jews. What begins to change the equation is the introduction of violence — kristallnacht.
Stage 2: Violence, War and Ghettoization (ca. 1938 – 1941)
Kristallnacht is a weird thing. Nazis tried to portray this event as the organic rising up of the average German against the Jewish oppressor and heroically destroying their sources of power. Actually, this was an orchestrated pogrom of sorts with national offices specifically telling party members to wear ordinary clothes so that it could seem like it was natural even though it wasn’t. In fact, there were many cases of fire departments being called out to contain the flames only to synagogues or Jewish businesses and many German families were outraged that they would not put out the fires in the Jewish buildings. For the most part though it was a successful experiment in mobilizing Germans to attack Jews while the average German passively accepted it. There was some outcry granted, but nothing massive. We know this because even in the latter stages Nazis seem to react to democratic impulses. A famous case being Germans protesting their Jewish husbands/wives being deported to concentration camps and succeeding in getting their shipments stopped. The major point that one should draw from Kristallnach is that violence is okay now. One last thing to note is that at this time, it was still possible to get out of Germany. Even people as high up the Nazi command as Eichmann advocated for forcing the Jews to immigrate to Israel. The point is that while things are getting bad for Jews, extermination is still way off in the distance. This period ends with the start of the war. The war radicalizes and changes everything.
Germany had a large population of Jews prior to the war and it is important to note that a majority of German Jews survive the Holocaust. This is not true in Poland. With Germany’s invasion of Poland, Germany suddenly has added millions of Jews to its empire and something has to be done about it. It is decided that the already existing system of concentration camps for political prisoners and some Jews is to be expanded massively. However, even with this expansion there is simply not enough room for all the of these Jews to be successfully controlled and so it is opted that the ghettos of Warsaw and Krakow are to be utilized as well. Here is where ghetto, concentration camp, and extermination camps need to be differentiated. Concentration camps are nothing new, they were used in South Africa well before the war, and are used in the U.S. during the war for Japanese prisoners. The idea is that if you have an enemy, if you concentrate them all in one place, you can contain them and prevent them from doing anything bad. Ghettos are a little bit different. While the same principle of concentration is being applied, they are actually massive walled off sections of cities that Jews were already living in. The issue with ghettos unlike concentration camps is that as the war progressed Nazis began to massively overcrowd them and massively under-supply them. There is still not a lot of organized killing, although it does happen, especially during the uprisings that take place in some of the ghettos, but most Jews in these ghettos are dying of disease and starvation. To the Nazis, this seems like the “Jewish Problem” is solving itself. The issue becomes completely compounded and un-manageable after the invasion of the Soviet Union in ’43.
*Kristallnacht introduces violence and concentration begins prior to the war, but the war begins the actual killing of Jews although it is mostly passive through starvation and disease in the ghettos.
Stage 3: Einsatzgruppen and Death Camps (1943 – 1945)
With the invasion of the Soviet Union which includes much of Eastern Europe, Ukraine, Russia Germany now controls almost the entirety of the Jews of Europe. There is simply no resources, time, or interest in concentrating Jews and slowly waiting for them to die out. The war is raging and Germany is becoming stretched thin. In addition, due to the structure of the Nazi government, unlike many caricatures of the Germans of being extremely efficient and organized, Hitler ran the empire very loosely and would hold meetings with his top staff and make suggestions. These suggestions were then made into policy by his officials who were all competing for Hitler’s favor and affection. As the war went on this competition became more intense as generals and different branches sought to out do each other. When Hitler would muse on the Jewish issue, top leaders would attempt to find the easiest way to get rid of the Jews. This is how the Final Solution began.
Now as for the specifics, many of the Jews that were killed in the Holocaust were murdered by Einsatzgruppen. These were groups of typically reservists called up into SS units with the task of rounding up Jews in towns where the main German army had already advanced through, recording names and taking valuables, and then individually taking them out into a forest or field outside the town and putting a bullet in the back of their head. This is where you start to see some of the mass graves and it is gruesome work. Average Germans with no other options are forced to wipe out entire villages and populations of Jews.
This still isn’t fast enough for the Nazis and the war has taken a very dour turn for the Germans by 1944. It is in this period that the extermination camps are increasingly utilized although they were actually constructed and being utilized to an extent as early as 1942. People are often surprised at how late this occurs considering how many Jews die in camps and the fact that many believe that this was Hitler’s plan all along. This just goes to show how radicalized and efficient the Germans had to become. Death camps as opposed to the labor or concentration camps are simply factories for murder. There are two lines, one for those who might be able to provide some labor temporarily, and on for women, children, the sick, the elderly, etc. The lines were usually decided by a doctor who would give a cursory look and decide if you would live or die. If you were in the line marked for death you would be march into a locker room of sorts where you would be told to remove all valuables and clothing and prepare for showers and decontamination. They would then be herded into rooms with what looked like shower heads but were actually dispersal agents for the gas. The doors would be locked, the gas administered, the gas would be released and then the bodies would be collected and sent to the massive incinerators to be burned. It was a conveyor belt of unceremonious carnage and the culmination of old world hate and modern ingenuity and efficiency.
*Towards the end of the war Germany pushes for more efficiency and a quicker solution to the “Jewish Problem” beginning with simply shooting individual Jews, to the gas chambers and incinerators of Auschwitz II.
So that’s basically how they did it. Another major issue that I did not address is the role played by non-Jews in the Holocaust. Jews were not the only ones killed in the Holocaust and it is important to understand why. It was really cathartic for me to write all of this out and try to address this massive topic and do it the justice it deserves. Some people think that the Holocaust is this horrible thing that we can’t even begin to comprehend because it is so evil, but it is our moral obligation to look at human events even when they are the most difficult and attempt to look at the evidence and analyze what happened. Part of the reason I study and talk about this topic is because I think of history as a sort of justice. People should know how and why they died. It wasn’t because of some unimaginable evil. It was the actions and choices of human beings just like you and me effected by the currents of thought and history just like you and me.
- “The Pity of It All” by Amos Elon
- “The Jew in the Modern World: A Documentary History” by Paul Mendes-Flohr & Jehuda Reinharz
- “Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland” by Christopher Browning
- “Night” by Elie Weisel
- “If This is A Man” by Primo Levi
- “Because of Romek: A Holocaust Survivor’s Memoir” by David Farber